I struggled with anxiety for many years.
In some ways, I'm still coping with anxiety— it's simply not winning anymore. It never really goes away, though. It's still there, in the back of my head, the worries and panic a little quieter now.
On another day, I'll share my anxiety story (because I know that when I was first experiencing how terrible and alienated anxiety and panic disorders could be, I would have given anything to know that so many other people were experiencing the same thing— that I wasn't some kind of freak), but today I wanted to share a few things that helped me cope.
A caveat? This is what worked for me. I'm not suggesting that this will work for everyone, and I'm certainly not offering medical advice. This is what helped me, after many years of suffering and depression, begin to live with anxiety, and not merely exist with it.
1. Don't try to go at it alone.
Part of my fear was that people would notice I was acting strangely or say something about it. The solution? Let people in on your big secret. Confide in someone who can help cover for you. For me, it helped immensely just having someone who knew, someone whose hand I could squeeze when I felt like I was going under. Someone to whom you can say, "Hey, if I disappear for a moment, don't worry. I just need a minute alone."
2. Tell people how they can help you.
In my case, this meant teaching people how they could chatter away to distract me (rather than asking if I was okay), or what they should do if I passed out in the middle of a Gap store (true story— smashed my head on the checkout counter on the way down and the next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground and a firefighter was kneeling there, making sure I was okay).
If I feel terrible, I'm not trapped. I can make sure that I have someone to drive me home in an emergency, I know where I can go for a quiet moment, I know where the cups are in a friends house so I can slip away and get a glass of water without drawing attention to myself.
3. Become the master OF your brain.
I acknowledge this might be controversial, and it's not for everyone at every time. It worked for me, however, when I was ready.
When I struggled with anxiety, I had a lot of very obvious physical symptoms if a panic attack was coming on: I'd be pale, shaky, cold, sometimes throwing up, and sometimes dropping unconscious in the middle of public places (hallways, class rooms, the aformentioned Gap). Although the physical symptoms were very much real, anxiety begins in the brain. I could draw my attention away from the physical symptoms and lessen their power on me by telling myself: "Yeah, I might feel nauseated right now, but it's not real. It's just my anxiety brain telling me I feel nauseated." If it was in my head, and not a real symptom, than it couldn't really hurt me.
Instead of becoming fixated on the physical location and sensation of the symptoms and thinking over and over: "Oh god, I'm nauseated. I feel so sick to my stomach right now", I could tell myself: "You know what? The physical symptoms are just a thought, and if I stop focusing on them, they'll go away."
And, to my astonishment, they did.
Find a breathing technique that works for you, and stick with it. Not only does it help slow your breathing and your heart rate, it places your focus on something simple and non-frightening— your breathing. My favourite breathing method is something called 4 by 4 breathing (and if I remember correctly, it's also used by military people, and other folks who find themselves in stressful situations more often than they care to).
It's simple: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breath out for 4 seconds (I also like breathing out long and slow for 8 seconds instead of four). I notice within about a minute how much my heart-rate has calmed, and my brain seems to get a little less scattered and fuzzy, and well.
5. Know your surroundings.
Like a ninja, or a secret agent. That's fun, right? All joking aside, knowing where things were in any given building was immensely helpful to getting my anxiety under control— more specifically, knowing where washrooms where, and were I could be alone.
More often than not panic attacks would make me very nauseated, and the idea of feeling nauseated and maybe even tossing my guts in public made the anxiety worse— leading to worse anxiety. Typical spiral. I quickly found that knowing where individual washrooms were when I was at uni (you know, the kind with one toilet and a locked door), instantly took away that fear of having to be sick in public, and thus, lessened the power the anxiety symptoms had over me. So what if I felt a bit ill? I had a place to go, which meant I wasn't trapped.
Now, your weird anxiety fixation might not be the same as my weird anxiety fixation, but whatever it is that you need to make yourself feel a bit better— find it.
6. Find the right people.
My step-sister once yelled at me in a hotel-room that the reason I had no friends was because I was a "fucking freak"— referring, of course, to my anxiety.
We no longer speak.
The people who matter will work with you. They'll push you when you need to be pushed, and understand when your brain is telling you you're dying and you just can't cope with more.
7. Remember that it's okay to medicate.
Anxiety is real. Panic attacks are real— and both of these things can be life-ruining in a hurry, brining on social isolation, confusion, and depression (I can safely check all three of those boxes). I remember feeling that I really really didn't want to be on some kind of medication for my brain, as though that made me an Official Freak, but looking back, I can see the flaw in my thinking here.
If someone had a terrible infection, a dangerous flu, or cancer, you wouldn't deny them life-saving medication.
Mental illness is an illness, just like any other.
If I can leave you with one thing, it's this: anxiety doesn't maker you weak. It makes you a fighter.
You're not alone.